¶ Boccaccio — De claris mulieribus (1473)

December 5, 2016


Boccaccio, Giovanni. De claris mulieribus. Ulm: Johann Zainer, 1473.

Illustrated. Morris: “To turn back to the books numbered above as the most important of the school, I should call John Zainer’s De Claris mulieribus, and the Æsop, and Günther Zainer’s Spiegel des menschlichen Lebens the most characteristic. Of these my own choice would be the De Claris mulieribus, partly perhaps because it is a very old friend of mine, and perhaps the first book that gave me a clear insight into the essential qualities of the mediaeval design of that period. The subject-matter of the book also makes it one of the most interesting, giving it opportunity for setting forth the mediaeval reverence for the classical period, without any of the loss of romance on the one hand, and epical sincerity and directness on the other, which the flood-tide of Renaissance rhetoric presently inflicted on the world. No story-telling could be simpler and more straightforward, and less dependent on secondary help, than that of these curious, and, as people phrase it, rude cuts. And in spite (if you please it) of their rudeness, they are by no means lacking in definite beauty: the composition is good everywhere, the drapery well designed, the lines rich, which shows of course that the cutting is good. Though there is no ornament save the beautiful initial S and the curious foliated initials above mentioned, the page is beautifully proportioned and stately, when, as in the copy before me, it has escaped the fury of the bookbinder. ¶ The great initial S I claim to be one of the very best printers’ ornaments ever made, one which would not disgrace a thirteenth-century manuscript. Adam and Eve are standing on a finely-designed spray of poppy-like leafage, and behind them rise up the boughs of the tree. Eve reaches down an apple to Adam with her right hand, and with her uplifted left takes another from the mouth of the crowned woman’s head of the serpent, whose coils, after they have performed the duty of making the S, end in a foliage scroll, whose branches enclose little medallions of the seven deadly sins. All this is done with admirable invention and romantic meaning, and with very great beauty of design and a full sense of decorative necessities. ¶ As to faults in this delightful book, it must be said that it is somewhat marred by the press-work not being so good as it should have been even when printed by the weak presses of the fifteenth century; but this, though a defect, is not, I submit, an essential one.” (Ideal book, p. 52.)

Provenance: Morris. — Richard Bennett. — J. Pierpont Morgan. — Morgan Library (ChL470).

References: Ellis valuation, fol. 10b, no. 118 (£70). —  ISTC (ib00716000). — Morgan Catalogue 1, no. 194. — MS catalogue (2), no. 987 (with an X beside the title).

Digital version: BSB.


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